Moments before she steps through the curtain and heads into the ring, professional wrestler Katie Cerda ’17, a graduate of Cal U’s theater program, is tamping down nerves.

Although her wrestling moves are well-practiced, she’s felt the same before every match since she made her pro wrestling debut in February 2017.

It’s the same feeling she had backstage in Steele Hall before the opening of a musical or play.

“Right before I go out through the curtain, I’m constantly going over lines, making sure I have my props, waiting for my cue. It’s the exact same feeling,” she says.

Cerda’s entrance music, “Bang Bang” by XYLØ, starts to play, and her transformation begins. When she throws back the curtain and strides into the main arena, she is no longer Katie Cerda.

She is Katie Arquette, a loud-mouthed, vicious Hollywood star with only one goal – to defeat her opponent at all costs.


Pro wrestlers like Cerda are both highly trained athletes and performers in a multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry that ranges from big names such as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) to small, regional companies.

With its flips, kicks and body-slams, the sport has a strong following in western Pennsylvania, where fans take in shows produced by companies such as Pittsburgh-based IWC, the International Wrestling Cartel, and Prospect Pro Wrestling, of Worthington, Pa.

Cerda has performed as Katie Arquette throughout the region and at venues from Illinois to Maine. Recognized as one of the region’s top female wrestlers, she currently holds the IWC Women’s Championship.

“I was into (pro wrestling) when I was little,” Cerda says. “My sister let me watch. I was amazed by (WWE star) Kane and just the fun and excitement of wrestling.”

Katie Cerda '17, aka Katie Arquette, lifts opponent Briana Belliconish '20, who wrestles as Ella Shae.

Her love of pro wrestling reignited when she enrolled at Cal U, joined the Alpha Sigma Tau sorority and became friends with some Sigma Tau Gamma fraternity brothers.

“They were watching wrestling pay-per-views,” she recalls. “I found out Kane was still wrestling, and it sparked more interest.”

She began training at IWC’s Iron City Wrestling Academy, in South Park, Pa., and made her wrestling debut while she was still a student.

“The theater department was really supportive,” she says. “Dr. (Michele) Pagen is super serious when it comes to productions, so I had to balance wrestling and (theatrical) shows. But the whole faculty was there when I needed them.

Katie Cerda '17, aka Katie Arquette, lifts opponent Briana Belliconish '20, who wrestles as Ella Shae.

“Dr. Pagen was very open to letting me strive with wrestling, and (assistant professor John Paul Staszel) did a lot of improv and movement courses to help me understand body and mind when performing on stage.”

Costume shop coordinator Joni Farquhar helped Cerda discover how clothing creates a character.

“With the costumes, you transition into something newer and brighter,” Cerda says. “She always made me feel I could do it, whether on a stage or in a ring.”


Cerda is not the only Cal U alumnus in pro wrestling. For U.S. Navy veteran Gabriel Zisk ’20, the sport’s over-the-top storylines became a creative outlet while he studied for his master's degree in cybersecurity.

He also trained at Iron City Wrestling Academy and worked on the ring crew, setting up venues and props for shows.

“There were days during that time when I would come home from work, do homework, go in and wrestle, do ring crews on the weekends,” he says.

“There were a couple of times when I had a paper due and I was wrestling in the middle of nowhere. I had a mobile hotspot, and one time I was in the back of our ring crew truck working on a paper.

“If I needed time, I would email the professors and let them know. They were always understanding and flexible. I could always reach out to them for assistance.”

Zisk wrestles as Zander Gabrial, known as “The Breaker of Gainz.” His fun-loving attitude, combined with strength, makes him a fan favorite. Younger kids, especially, love his googly-eyed headbands and never-say-die attitude.

Gabriel Zisk 20, who wrestles as Zander Gabrial.

“Zander is just me, but expanded on,” Zisk says. “It’s an extension of who I am, but with a spin. He’s just that goofy guy who thinks that he’s really cool.”

Several Cal U students also lace up their boots to work on weekends. Criminal justice major Zahqui McCelleis wrestles as Zeke Mercer, drawing on his own real-life combat arts experience to create the character of a young, hungry fighter known for impressive wrestling moves and hard-hitting strikes.

In character as Zeke Mercer, Cal U senior Zahqui McCelleis (right) tangles with wrestler Joey Moses.

“I fell in love with wrestling through a video game, and then I started watching,” McCelleis says. “I told my dad, ‘I want to do this,’ and we looked for training.”

Three years later, McCelleis is balancing coursework with wrestling. The rising senior trains and competes with promotions companies including Prospect Pro Wrestling and Altoona-based Eclipse Pro Wrestling.

“With technology now, you can always bring a laptop and work on your assignments before a show,” he says.

“I have a strong work ethic, so I’ll get the work done one way or another. And it’s great, because if I’m stressed out over assignments or schoolwork, I always have pro wrestling. This is a wonderful stress reliever.”

McCelleis says he enjoys his double life.

“At Cal U, I’m Zahqui. When wrestling, I’m Zeke Mercer. It’s a lot like having a superhero alter ego. And everyone is cool with that. This is my extracurricular activity, like any other sport.”